Beyond Partisanship on Filibuster Reform

In a Bloomberg column, conservative pundit (and newly established AEI wonk) Ramesh Ponnuru provides a good summary of the argument that Democrats may live to regret their recent interest in filibuster reform. He doesn’t actually think the reforms Harry Reid is promoting will make a big difference in how the Senate operates, but does believe the use of the “constitutional option” sets a precedent Republicans might exploit later on–since partisan hypocrisy on the subject is the general rule–to roll back “welfare state” provisions up to and including Obamacare. More generally, he thinks liberals, having achieved most of their “welfare state” agenda with the enactment of Obamacare, ought to understand they now benefit from any institutional impediments to significant public policy change.

It’s a seductive argument, but misses some key points about the difference between progressives and conservatives. The former temperamentally dislike gridlock, and have greater faith in democratic institutions–however flawed–to reflect public opinion in the long run. Moreover, the charge that both parties are equally hypocritical in supporting filibuster reform when they control the Senate and opposing it when they don’t reflects inadequate memory of what GOPers were trying to do when they flirted with “the nuclear option” in 2005: it was all about cutting off filibusters of judicial nominations (a subject on which Republicans are perpetually under intense pressure from their Christian Right base), not routine imposition of a 60-vote threshold for conducting Senate business. Indeed, you can make the case that of all the circumstances that might merit a filibuster, lifetime appointments to the federal bench are the most compelling.

Personally, I’m more than willing to take the risk that filibuster reform might produce some short-term “regrets” for progressives. The alternative is a U.S. Senate in which (thanks to the Senate’s geographical composition) conservatives have a permanent, long-term veto over measures they dislike, regardless of the political landscape or contemporary public opinion.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.